Let’s talk middling NBA teams — the bottleneckers, those stuck tiptoeing above, below, or at .500. Who is most likely to rise above their current record? And who doesn’t — because of scheduling, or injuries, or small-sample successes evening out — have much of a chance to emerge? We ranked the eight teams currently stuck in the ~.500 zone.
8. Heat (13–13)
Miami has been the season’s biggest disappointment thus far, though maybe I was just duped by its late run at the end of last season. (Damn you, Dion.)
The Heat have faced the seventh toughest strength of schedule, but they also have a few problems that will not go away anytime soon. Hassan Whiteside has been out for the past six games with a bone bruise in his left knee, and has been missed, but just how large his role on the team should be is in question. Waiters is strong-headed as ever, having recently refused the idea of coming off the bench (though it’s been floated only by reporters outside the organization). And Goran Dragic, the engine for their offense, has fallen off in virtually every statistical category.
7. Knicks (14–13)
I adore the Knicks, whose most-improved candidate and congenial (except, maybe, in the Instagram comment section) centerpiece, Kristaps Porzingis, has enchanted the basketball world. Courtney Lee looks much better without being forced into the triangle offense, and Frank Ntilikina grows as a player every game. But the Knicks’ recent issues suggest they may not be able to sustain their surprising start to the season: A short bench has held them back this season, and they struggle on the road (they’ve won only once away from Madison Square Garden, against Cleveland).
Also, Tim Hardaway Jr. is out for a while with a stress injury to his left leg, and New York’s upcoming schedule isn’t doing it any favors.
6. Jazz (13–14)
The fact that Quin Snyder has managed to continually pump life into the arteries of this offense is, in a word, masterly. Utah has relied on a rookie and a veteran passer moonlighting as a scorer through injuries to its most important player, Rudy Gobert, and, of late, Rodney Hood. (The latter is expected to return Wednesday.)
The sole reason I’ve ranked the Jazz this low is because of their upcoming schedule. They have a taxing stretch coming their way: After Wednesday’s game in Chicago, the Jazz are on the road against the Celtics, Cavaliers, Rockets, and Thunder, before finishing out December against the Spurs, Thunder again, at Denver (which, OK), at Golden State, and then against the Cavs again.
I believe in Utah long term. Snyder is one of the league’s best tacticians, and Donovan Mitchell has already become a reliable contributor. But this schedule will inevitably set it back.
T-4. Pistons (14–13) and Trail Blazers (13–13)
There’s a big difference between these two: Detroit has had the second-toughest schedule so far, while Portland is tied for the 22nd. But both are battling through losing streaks — the Pistons on seven losses and the Blazers on five — that, as you all know, are partly The Ringer’s doing. (Pray for Oladipo.)
Jusuf Nurkic was out for Portland’s past two games (against the Rockets and Warriors) and couldn’t lift the Blazers enough in losses to Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Washington before that.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s once-potent offense has unraveled. Stan Van Gundy called out Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond, Avery Bradley, and Reggie Jackson after losing to Denver on Tuesday, saying the Pistons are “in holes too many nights with them.”
Both teams have relatively easy stretches coming up, so that should help them break free of their unfortunate streaks.
3. Sixers (14–13)
Philadelphia has had the toughest schedule so far, and yet its young team has still managed to overcome expected growing pains to sit above .500. The Sixers ended their four-game losing streak Tuesday, but is slowly getting some of the players who have been absent because of injuries — Embiid for two games, Robert Covington for two, and T.J. McConnell for five — back. (Covington was a game-time decision against Minnesota on Tuesday and has two days off before Philadelphia faces the Thunder on Friday.)
The Sixers are young, especially its core. But they also have veteran wisdom (J.J. Redick) and several players developing into solid, consistent role players. Take Philly seriously — barring [I won’t even say it because I don’t want to jinx it], this is a team in it for the long run.
2. Wizards (14–13)
Washington has floundered without John Wall (left knee) for the past nine games, in which the Wizards have gone 4–5. Last season showed that the starting unit would have to carry this team — there’s no hanging in without him like the Spurs did without Kawhi — and this season is no different. Bradley Beal has looked lost at times without Wall to set him up, but the Wizards’ 2-guard has resurfaced in their past four games, averaging 34.5 points.
It is the Wizards’ most blatant weakness, but also one simply out of their control (for this season, anyway — get a bench already, Grunfeld). When Wall returns, so will their winning ways.
1. Pelicans (14–14)
New Orleans is stuck in the middle of the standings along with the rest of this list, but is the most likely to break ahead of the pack. Anthony Davis has been in and out of the lineup lately because of injuries, but for once, the Pelicans’ role players — Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller, and E’Twaun Moore, especially — have helped to keep the squad afloat in his sporadic absences.
Pairing Davis with DeMarcus Cousins, their more traditional, less-unicorny All-Star big man, has given the team the bite it needs. His consistent production has masked the Pelicans’ poor defense, and with an easy schedule ahead, New Orleans has a shot to break away.